How Recycling and Reuse Created Thousands of Jobs and a $1 Billion Boost to Austin’s Economy — Episode 120 of Building Local Power

Date: 18 Feb 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Brenda Platt, Director of ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative, and Gena McKinley, Strategic Initiatives Division Manager for Austin Resource Recovery. Their discussion touches on:

  • The economic and environmental benefits of the Circular Economy Program in Austin — including highlights from a recent economic impact report that found it resulted in more than $1.1 billion in total economic activity and approximately 6,300 permanent jobs.
  • The importance of the city’s Zero Waste Plan and how the plan has evolved over the past ten years.
  • The many different reuse and recovery programs Gena’s team helps facilitate, including fix-it clinics and skill-sharing events.
  • How Gena views the role of local leadership in tackling the climate crisis, building equity, and creating a sustainable economy.


“I mean if you’re talking about $1.1 billion, then definitely we want to continue to invest in this in our community, so that we can be prosperous and we can encourage the sector… the benefit of the way that this program is configured within the government organization itself — by having it housed in the solid waste utility but partnered with economic development, especially coupled with solid data verified by an independent consultant — that really is powerful.”


Jess: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought-provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power, a communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more that 35 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess: In today’s episode, we’re going to be discussing how cities not only can cut waste, but they can do so while creating local jobs and otherwise boosting the local economy. And we’re going to be talking specifically about the City of Austin. And here to join us is Gena McKinley, who is a longtime environmental planner with the City of Austin, and now manages the Strategic Initiatives division of Austin Resource Recovery. Welcome to the show.
Gena: Thank you. Good to be here.
Jess: And also with me is Brenda Platt, who leads our Composting for Community initiative at ILSR. Welcome, Brenda.
Brenda: Hi, nice to be here.
Jess: And do you want to kind of get us started with a question?
Brenda: Sure. It might not be a question. I just want to say, it’s so nice to have Gena here representing the city because the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we have such a long history working to cut waste with the city. We helped defeat a planned trash incinerator I think more than 30 years ago, and the city had already invested something like $40 million in that incinerator but still canceled it in order to get on the path of zero waste. And we helped develop the first zero waste plan in Texas with this city, which I think was approved back in 2009. And that set that goal to reduce the amount of waste by 90% by 2040.
Brenda: And now we’ve been advocating for zero waste planning around the country for so many years, and I always point to Austin, always. Austin is such a model in zero waste planning, your resource recovery master plan, and you have so many innovative programs. This is what we’re going to talk about today, your Fix-It clinics and your reuse directory and your rebates for home composting, which we’ve actually featured and helped to replicate. So again, it’s not a question, sorry Jess and Gena, but I am thrilled to have this opportunity to spotlight your work so others can be inspired.
Jess: Thank you Brenda. That was a great introduction. So one piece of your work is the Circular Economy program in the city. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the program and how you’re involved?
Gena: Sure. And like Brenda said, the City of Austin is a city with a zero waste goal. So we did start with a strategic plan back in 2008, 2009 like you mentioned, Brenda. And then in 2011, we did formally adopt our zero waste plan which really set the roadmap for us to achieve zero waste, which we defined as 90% diversion from the landfill by the year 2040.
Gena: So what I do in the department is a lot of the planning, policies and programs hit that target, and one of those programs that I think we’re going to talk about today is our Circular Economy program. That’s one of a handful of programs within my division. And the focus is really to model our city’s economic system on the natural system that we live in. By transitioning to a circular economy, we can not only reduce our environmental impact as a community but also create a higher quality of life for the individuals that live within it, and also create a more resilient community.
Gena: So the program really got its star, the Circular Economy program, in 2013, and it started with really a single staffer that was focused on recycling economic development. And it was fully funded by my department which is Austin Resource Recovery at the city’s solid waste utility, but also in very close partnership with our economic development department because we saw really a great opportunity for collaboration between those two departments when it came to building up our circular economy here in Austin.
Gena: And then let’s see. From then, we did add an additional staff member in 2017, and then we added another position just last year. So it’s still a relatively small but mighty team. We have a program coordinator and an economic development services coordinator and a program manager who reports up to me. And we have a bunch of different programs that we do with just a relatively small staff. Some Brenda mentioned, and I’m sure we’ll talk about more of them today.
Gena: But we have a goal to make Austin the most vibrant circular economy in the United States where materials get reused, repaired, shared, and recycled to their fullest extent within the local economy. So that’s kind of what we do. We work with businesses and residents to try and make that happen.
Brenda: Do you think Austin is unique in connecting… instead of calling it it the, you know, Division of Solid Waste Management, it’s the Resource Recovery agency? And then partnering with the economic development department, how unique is that in the US? I mean it seems there aren’t enough cities making those connections.
Gena: Yeah, you know, and that was intentional, moving from referring to ourselves as a solid waste utility to now calling ourselves Austin Resource Recovery, because we really wanted to shift the mindset of our community away from thinking of materials as waste and something to be discarded, kind of that linear make, take, dispose economy, and looking more towards a circular economy. So we wanted to wherever we could emphasize that these are resources we’re talking about and we don’t need to be discarding them.
Gena: In terms of being unique, you know, around the globe I feel like there is more emphasis on circularity. There are more even countries that might have circular plans, whereas you don’t see that as much here in the United States. But I do see the City of Austin as a leader in this space, using the terminology, talking about not just zero waste but how can we truly create a circular economy, which in my mind is kind of that next step in kind of how you operationalize your waste. So I’d like to say that we’re leading the way here in the United States.
Brenda: Certainly sounds that way to me. So tell us about some of the programs, like I mentioned the Fix-It clinic. So that’s, I just think like every city should have Fix-It clinics. We shouldn’t be throwing away our electric toothbrushes and toasters and lamps and computers. There’s just so many things. Clothing, textiles.
Gena: Yeah. So this team, I think it’s one of the most fun pieces of my work because there’s so much creativity that goes into it. Like you mentioned, one of the programs we have are around repair and reuse. So we do host Fix-It clinics where we have local fixers who volunteer their time to set up shop either in a public library, we try to find community spaces on the weekends. During the week, we vary the hours to try to make it accessible, and also the geographic location in the city. In kind of non-COVID times, that’s our norm. Yeah, so the community can sign up and bring in the material.
Gena: It’s kind of amazing to me that these local volunteers, you know, you can bring in a toaster that’s broken and they somehow magically know how to fix a toaster. But we’ve seen all kinds of things. And the reason we do that is to really promote extending the life of things, because we can recycle items. We can donate items so they can be reused by someone else, but if we can extend the life of something with the person who has it, that’s even better. So we do host those.
Gena: We also have repair clinics where we teach people skills to make those repairs on their own. So it could be anything from soldering to sewing, basic bicycle maintenance and all kinds of things. So that’s one aspect of what we do. And we have a lot of educational campaigns that we run. One that happened not too long ago over the holidays is Give a Great Story, where we encourage the community to, instead of your typical gift where you buy something from a retailer, that you consider repairing a beloved item, giving a gift of an experience or just kind of thinking more intentionally about how you’re gift-giving throughout the holidays.
Gena: So those are some of our reuse and repair. We have a focus on not only the residential community, kind of an individual behavior change, but also on our business community. So that’s a big part of it. One of the programs you’ve likely heard of is the Austin Materials Marketplace, and that’s a business to business byproduct exchange. So basically find a business that has a byproduct and sending to the landfill, I can put it on this online exchange board and other businesses can look and see if that might be a material that they could use in their process. So we’ve diverted a lot of materials from the landfill just from these trades of businesses being able to communicate with one another about what they have that they’re discarding and what some other business might need.
Gena: We work with local universities to capture items that honestly are in great condition that are often overflowing at a landfill dumpster when students move in and move out. And it is, I mean I volunteered for that event and it is incredible the amount of material and the quality of material that’s just tossed aside. So we partner with our local thrift and reuse organizations and nonprofits to help create stations where we can collect that material. But the list goes on. I don’t know how this team does all the things that they do. We do a lot of really fun stuff I think.
Jess: Yeah. I’m just curious, so were you able to, or did you have to adapt any of these programs for pandemic times? I assume that’s been a challenge, especially you were talking about the Fix-It clinics, if you can’t set up shop in a library as you once were.
Gena: It has. And in some cases, we’ve actually seen greater and different participation from people because we have virtual opportunities to do things. But the Fix-It clinic, that was a tough one. That’s probably one of the most difficult to rethink during the COVID times. But we did try out a Fix-It clinic that was virtual. We had asked people to sign up and give us a description of the items that they needed to be repaired, and then we would try to find a fixer who we could set up kind of a one-on-one Zoom style consultation to get the item fixed. So it would be more coaching, “This is how you fix it” rather than putting the item in the fixer’s hand and them getting it back. And it honestly wasn’t that well-received, so we kind of stopped that.
Gena: But was has been successful is repair series. So we have a fix it at home series that we’ve launched where we’ve done all kinds of repair, like similar to the classes I mentioned that we do typically. Sewing, bike repair, we’ve had musical instrument repair. And those have been really popular. And because they’re virtual, we can record them. We have now a library of these videos that the public can access at any time. We’re working with our parks department and our library system to get those logged there so that they can be promoted for access to the general public. So yeah, there’s definitely been some modifications. Some were harder than others.
Brenda: So over the years I’ve documented jobs through reuse and repair operations comparing it to recycling, comparing it to composting, and certainly comparing it to landfill and trash incineration. And we found that for every 10,000 tons sent to a landfill or incinerator, you create one job. If you’re composting it’s like four jobs. Recycling, sorting recycles like 10 jobs. But reuse and repair, it’s like orders of magnitude greater. It’s like 100 jobs. I’m just curious, have you been tracking, like to try to sell the programs to the city or the constituents, do you track the value to the city in terms of jobs or economic development?
Gena: We do actually, and we use that figure that came from you guys I believe, that the 10,000 pounds of trash is one landfill job versus like 25 if you’re looking at re-manufacturing. So yes, we definitely use that and promote that. But we commissioned a study in 2015 because we did want, like data’s very important to me in how we plan our programs and how we figure out “Where do we emphasize our efforts?” We want to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. So we did have a study in 2015 and we contacted out to measure the economic impact of recycling and reuse in Austin. And we recently updated that last year and attempted to expand the scope to include a wider definition of industry activities that are really recycling and reuse related. It’s not perfect, but we tried to improve upon what we had done before.
Gena: And based on that new definitions and expanding it, we found in the past five years, the total direct circular economy employment in Austin rose from a little over 2,500 jobs to a little over 3,000, while the direct payroll climbed from 74.5 million to 165.8 million. And then the total economic impact of the sector, if you include the indirect and also the induced impacts of these types of jobs, it’s roughly $1.1 billion of economic activity and the support of approximately 6,300 jobs. So having data like that can really help. I mean if you’re talking about $1.1 billion, then definitely we want to continue to invest in this in our community so that we can be prosperous and we can encourage the sector.
Gena: And as part of honestly the benefit of the way that this program is configured within the government organization itself by having it housed in the solid waste utility but partnered with economic development, especially coupled with solid data verified by an independent consultant, that really is powerful in trying to look at economic development activity in your community directly in the department that’s doing it. So we can advocate for incentives in this industry and we have data to prove that it’s really worth the effort because it adds so much value to our community.
Brenda: Wow. $1.1 billion tied to 6,300 jobs. Did I get that right?
Gena: That’s correct.
Brenda: And the population I know of Austin is growing, but what’s the side of the city?
Gena: I don’t actually know, but right around a million.
Brenda: Yeah, okay. But that’s amazing. Wow, congratulations.
Gena: Thanks. Yeah, and if you’re interested, at, you can find a link to that study. There’s a lot of detail on how we came to those numbers, what we did, and it’s a great resource if you’re interested in looking even at replicating it in another community.
Brenda: We will put the link on the show notes for this episode. And there’s something you said before that I think is worth underscoring, that you’ve been able to do these programs with very little staff and very little budget. So let’s talk about that, because I think you and I have talked before about this point. And I think this is where it’s just, you know, other cities might say, “Oh, you got that impact but you probably had to carve out this huge chunk of your budget.” That is not the case, right?
Gena: Right. It is not. I mean we’re fortunate to have great partners in the community so it’s not all funded by the City of Austin through taxpayer dollars, and partners throughout the city organization too. And we’re very collaborative in nature as a city organization. But yeah, if you would ask me specifically “What does it cost to run this program?” And if you exclude, I mentioned it’s a very small staff. There’s a program manager, two employees that report to that manager, and then we do have interns that join us typically throughout the year on a part-time basis. So if you exclude the cost of that small staff team, personnel cost, it really is around $260,000 to run this program. Which is you think of that impact and all of the different programs that we have in place, it’s really a great value I think to the community, and is only growing.
Gena: We’ve got a lot of exciting ideas from this team that we plan to grow, which we will advocate for more resources to be able to do some of those things. But still, we try to find ways to be more efficient where we can.
Gena: An exciting project that I think is kind of cutting edge for, at least in the United States, we’re calling the Circular Cities project. And it’s just in its infancy, but we are looking internally. So turning that lens into us, the City of Austin. I don’t know, this is an estimate, but we’re around 13 or 14,000 employees just that are employed in the local government. And so we want to take a look at all of the departments, survey employees to find out, what are you throwing away? What are you using just maybe very infrequently? Where are there opportunities for us to really save cost as an organization? And I think that frees up dollars and can help fund some of these other programs.
Gena: But I’m really excited about what we might find. I think there’s a lot of redundancy likely, not just at the City of Austin but in any government agency, especially of this size. There’s a lot of siloing, and you just don’t know until you dig in and really get the data, and that’s what we’re attempting to do is really mine that data down to the individual employee level and figure out how we can operate more efficiently as a local government. And that can be a model for the businesses within our community too. So we really like to walk the walk before we try to push things out onto others.
Brenda: That makes sense. I want to segue to organics, or food scraps, yard trim green waste. Because there’s a few programs you have in Austin that I think really build self-reliance and community empowerment that your businesses and citizens can do. And one is the home composting rebate, up to $75 for people who I think take a training and then if they buy a home composting bed. But the other thing I love, and this may not fall under your program so feel free to tell me “That’s somebody else, Brenda,” but I love that you have a similar rebate for building chicken coops if I’m not wrong. And I think, you know, if you have chickens in your backyard and the city’s supporting you doing that, not only are you producing your own eggs, but chickens eat food scraps. So building the knowledge to convert food scraps into compost, black gold, go back into local soils for people. The city doesn’t even have to collect it so you’re saving money, building resilience.
Brenda: So can you just talk about those two programs and how you’re starting with the training and the economic incentives? It’s this idea of taking something small like that, a small investment. But if your community residents are doing these things, then they’re going to continue doing it for decades.
Gena: Yeah, you’re right. We’ve had the backyard home composting rebate in place since I believe 2010 is when we kicked it off, on Earth Day of that year. And it’s designed to, at that point in time… The City of Austin services single-family homes. So it’s about 15% of material generated in the city is collected by the City of Austin at primarily single-family residential homes. So we have curbside service, and that included trash, recycling, but at the time only weekly yard trimmings collection. So just like leaf and lawn clippings, but not food scraps.
Gena: Coming forward to today, we just actually this month are rolling out our final phase of curbside composting. So all of our customers will have access to a cart-based composting system where they can put food scraps and yard trimmings and all of the things. So in 2010, none of that existed, to here where we are today, now we have more systems in place.
Gena: But in 2010, we really wanted to just kind of pave the way, because I really think it’s important to bring people along with you as you move to zero waste. Incentivize things so that you can try it out. It wasn’t a mandate. If you were interested in trying to save money and create your own compost that you could use in your own home to benefit you, we were willing to give you a rebate to try it out. And so you had to take a class. You had to be a City of Austin customer, take a basic class about composting education to set you up for success so you knew what you were doing, and kind of take some of the fear away from it. And then you could buy a composting system of your choosing and we’ll rebate you $75.
Gena: So that rebate program is still in place today. Fortunately, we still see a lot of participants in the classes. And we’ve converted to virtual classes now, which has been seamless and fine. We still get a lot of participation. We’re seeing less people actually apply to the rebate, but what that tells us is that people still need the education, they still want the information about how to compost.
Gena: And like you said, I forget which year, but we did add chicken keeping to that program as another method of composting. And with that program, it’s a little harder in the kind of legal way that we can rebate folks for chicken keeping. I don’t myself have chickens because I think it would see its death with my dog. But I don’t think purchasing chickens is all that much of an investment. So we rebate coops and other types of equipment that you would need for the chickens. And we don’t see a lot of actual rebate applications. But again, like the other program, we see a lot of people, it’s a very popular class. A lot of people taking the class wanting to learn more.
Gena: So I don’t know if it’s just they haven’t taken that next step to actually get the chickens and start chicken keeping. Maybe it’s that behavior change theory, they just need to take it step by step, or if maybe they don’t need the coop but they really want to learn more about how to keep chickens. I don’t know.
Gena: But yeah, those are programs that we have in place still. And even, you know, we’ve talked about since we have rolled out the composting program too our community, maybe we will rethink the rebate. What’s the next thing that we need? One of the things we’re looking at now is organics requirements for multi-family properties which are collected by private [inaudible 00:22:06], so it’s not City of Austin collections. We don’t manage that material. And for that, that’s like 85% of material generated in our city is not controlled by the city, meaning it’s collected and hauled by the private market.
Gena: And so because we area city with a zero waste goal, we still need to influence where that material is going. And one of the ways we do that is through local policy. So we have a local ordinance in place called the Universal Recycling Ordinance, and that does have some minimum requirements for commercial and multi-family properties, a minimum requirement to have access to recycling. And for businesses with a food permit, there’s an organics diversion requirement. So that’s just a small chunk of that group.
Gena: What we’re looking at now is composting or organics diversion in multi-family properties, trying to gather data about what that looks like, how it could be successful. So we might do some sort of rebate type system for certain properties. You know, we want to try small, we want to try the huge, big ones, to see how it works. What do the tenants think? What do the property managers think? So I went kind of on a tangent from your original question, but there’s a lot related to organics. And because we are a city with a big goal, we have to look at all the places it’s generated and figure out how we can do something other than throwing it away.
Brenda: Absolutely. And I’m glad you mentioned policies because I was going to ask you about that. One of our co-founders of the Institute [David Morris 00:23:36] coined this term, “We make the rules and the rules make us,” meaning, you know, you need the rules to guide the kind of world you want to live in. And talking about chicken coops and even home composting, a lot of cities, especially older urban cities, have archaic laws on the books that basically say, “You can’t have yard waste or piles in your backyard,” which would prevent home composting. Or in the case of having chickens there’s, “Oh no, you can’t have chickens.” And it just seems like Austin is thinking about not only enacting the zero waste plan to begin with, the city council who passed that was setting this institutional framework to guide the programs that you’ve now been able to develop and partner with other sister agencies, but also institutionalizing some of these policies for the residential and commercial sectors to make things happen.
Brenda: So can you just talk little bit about the role of having the zero waste plan in the first place as just your guiding framework as well as all this wide range of policies? With the city council passing that, does that also help you get the budget you need to do these programs? Like there’s probably a symbiotic relationship between policies and the programs.
Gena: I mean absolutely. Having the plan in place has been a tremendous benefit. Not only does it guide the staff so we are all on the same page about what we’re trying to achieve and how we plan to get there, but also like you said, this is a plan that was adopted by our city council so you have that policy framework that you can reference when you go to council to say, “Okay, in this chapter we said we would do this because we’re trying to achieve this.” And so it does provide some more emphasis and data on, “If this is what we say we want to do as a city and you as our policy makers say this is a goal we have, we as staff have to present you with the best way to achieve that, and we have this plan to back us up.”
Gena: So I think it’s really important. It identified the mechanisms that we needed to move materials away from the landfill over time, and also it set benchmark targets. So that gave us a reporting back mechanism to the council.
Gena: We are actually in the process of updating our plan. It was adopted in 2011, so it’s been in place for about a decade. And you know, it’s been a good process because if you pick it up and look at it, and my team is the one that’s working on updating this plan, we’ve done a lot of the stuff we said we were going to do, which is fantastic. But at the same time, we’re not quite as far on diversion as we thought we would be at this point. So we’re taking it, you know, what did we learn? What’s worked? What hasn’t worked? What do we need to tweak to make sure that we stay on this path? So having the plan is great. It’s a great way to talk about all the things.
Gena: And the industry has changed because it’s been a decade, so there’s new technology, we have more information, we’re talking more about a circular economy where it wasn’t really a big part of what we were talking about in 2010, 2011. So all that has changed, and there’s opportunity. And I think even one of the things we’re looking at is, are we measuring things accurately? Data is so important, and diversion is really hard to measure, because how do you capture reuse and repair? How do you quantify repair happening in your community? It’s really challenging. And for whatever reason, we like to compare ourselves in the United States. We like to compare city to city when we have such different frameworks, regulatory frameworks and methods of calculating stuff, so I think it’s really hard. So one of the things we’re looking at is, how can we refine our measurement? Looking at maybe per capita disposal. That’s a cleaner number to be one of the data points that we can look at to measure our progress towards zero waste.
Jess: If the end goal is zero waste, are there benchmarks you set for yourself, either over the past 10 years or that you’re looking forward to the next 10, you know, that you want to accomplish within two years, five years, seven years, anything like that that have shifted or changed?
Gena: We have. That original plan in 2011 did have benchmark targets. I don’t have them in front of my, I apologize. But we did establish benchmark targets, and we’re a little bit behind those targets. So that’s what we have in place right now, and I believe it’s every five or 10 years there’s a diversion target that we’re aiming towards. So as we update our plan, we’re looking at that. Was that a realistic number? Why didn’t we hit it? What would it take to hit it? Is the measurement an accurate measurement? So we’re just taking a real big look at that. We’re not shifting our end goal or our end date. We still, our eye is on that main target. It’s just we’re really trying to figure out, “Okay, we’re at 2021. Our goal is 2040. We got a little less than 20 years to figure this out. How can we update basically our timeline and our benchmarks with activities and policies to show how this much diversion is attainable in this timeframe?”
Brenda: So this might be a good time to take a break. And when we come back on the other side, Gena, I’d love to ask you more about the power of local government to help build home-grown, healthy communities.
Jess: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast. If you’re enjoying the show, I hope you’ll consider making a donation to ILSR. Not only does your support underwrite this podcast, but it also helps us produce the resources and research we make available for free on our website. Please take a minute and go to Any amount is welcome and sincerely appreciate. That’s Thank you so much, and now back to my discussion with Brenda and Gena McKinley with the City of Austin.
Brenda: Gena, since our inception, since we were founded in 1974, we’ve recognized the power local government has to build self-reliant communities. And something you mentioned about just when we were talking about policies a few minutes ago, I know in the field that I work in on composting, the biggest obstacles to doing more on composting are really a lot of decisions that happen in the government field, whether it’s state or local. Seems like 80% of the obstacles are like, government could help fix them. And you’re just such a great example of a city and a local government leader doing these things, passing policies, doing the cross-sector work with economic development. What does being a local government leader mean to you?
Gena: Well you know, I think as a local government employee, I’ve been in the local government sector my whole career, and I think there’s a lot of responsibility that’s entrusted by your community to make good decisions that take into account the needs of the entire community, and kind of the best outcomes for everyone. So I think we as a local government have an opportunity to lead the way and to establish policies and programs that can create that sustainable future that I think we all want even if we don’t know it.
Gena: So as a local government, we have to take responsibility for that and figure out our way forward. One of the things… Some other things we’re looking at right now in the update of our plan is making sure that it’s equitable and that we can look at who we’re serving in our community to make sure that we are truly serving all of those folks. And we have to recognize and take responsibility for our contributions to some of the historical and structural disparities and quality of life outcomes in the community. And I think people might not see that tied to your solid waste utility, but I think it is. So as a local government, I think making sure we’re looking through that lens to create equity, take responsibility for any contributions we’ve had in creating bad outcomes, acknowledge those, do better and work towards a path to create really good outcomes for the whole community, that’s the job. And it relates to all aspects of local government.
Gena: I’m proud to be a local government employee that can take that on and really come to work every day to be creative. I feel very fortunate that this is… to me this is very creative work, working in trash. It’s what I’ve done my whole career, which is never what I thought I would be doing. But yeah, I mean that’s a little bit of it.
Brenda: Awesome. And you know, I’m glad you raised the equity issue because… and when I look back at the last 20, 30 years I’ve been working in this field, it’s so clear that trash and environmental justice have been tied together historically. You know, where landfills get sited and certainly where trash incinerators get sited in urban areas and underserved communities, and unfortunately too often communities of color. You know, Baltimore, Detroit have had highly polluting incinerators, and Austin kind of was able to dodge that. So is there anything more you can say about how you’re building equity and inclusivity and diversity in terms of thinking about the zero waste plan in particular?
Gena: The existing plan that’s in place right now, one of the things that we’re trying to add that’s actually put into the plan, it’s not to say we’re not doing the work on a regular basis, but reference an equity tool that’s specific to Austin and really build that out and have that as part of the plan so that it’s clear that any of the programs or policies, the activities that we’re putting through in the plan, we are intentionally evaluating equity as a part of that planning.
Gena: And I think just having a circular economy program, because if you think about a linear economy, it really causes economic and environmental harm to our residents, and disproportionately, as we said, disproportionately typically affecting low-income individuals or communities of color. And if we can transition to a circular economy, we can not only reduce our environmental impact, but we can create a higher quality of life for individuals, a resilient community, longterm business growth, and a more future-proof economy. And I think that’s something we all would say we would want.
Brenda: Absolutely.
Jess: I’m curious about the presence of community voices in this plan or in your work just in general. Is there a sense of a lot of enthusiasm from the community for these programs and for your work, or do you do a lot of outreach and education?
Gena: We do. Another part of my division is I manage the public information and marketing team. That is the team that does a lot of the work you’re mentioning, though I’d say everybody in our department has this responsibility to be out educating our community. Austin is a pretty vocal community, but I think if you really take a look at who those voices are, it’s not representative of the whole. So that’s something we’re really trying to do is take a look at that, and for the voices that are not at the table because they’re maybe not able to be or they’re not as loud, how do we engage and make sure we’re listening?
Gena: As part of the plan update, there’s definitely a huge community engagement component and community involvement, community feedback part of that. We’ve already put out kind of an initial survey which is just to prime the pump. There’s a lot of activities, focus groups and things like that that we plan to have. But we’ve worked with a consultant to host a storytelling workshop just for internal staff. And as a result of that, one of the things that we put on our plate for this year is to do like a story listening tour. So how can we go out into the community, and rather than tell our story, let’s just listen. Like especially repair and reuse, because we might talk about wearing vintage clothing or shopping thrift and it’s become trendy and hip, but people have been passing down clothes or reusing materials for decades. But how are they talking about it and what language are they using? Because we realize that perhaps the language that we’re using is really limiting and it’s not representative of the way everybody’s talking about it.
Gena: So this will probably be an ongoing project that we build upon, but it’s my hope that by doing this story listening in all areas of our community that we can even create an internal playbook. “Okay, when we talk about reuse and repair, these are all the different ways we can talk about it, and the ways that the community’s talking about it,” in hopes that we can resonate more and reach a broader audience. I don’t know if that answered your specific question.
Jess: No, yeah, that was great. As a comms person I’m like, yes! This is what I want to know about.
Gena: [crosstalk 00:36:31].
Brenda: Getting back to that, circling back just to the… I like the circular economy, circling back to the idea of the role of cities and the power of cities and local government, not just on waste as we’re talking about but just centering it in economic development and local jobs and preventing climate disruption. I think you kind of talked about this with the Circular Cities project you mentioned earlier, but anything more to say about the role of cities and the power local government has in this space?
Gena: For those listening, I don’t know the full audience of this, but I think it’s really important to stay engaged in your local government to the extent that you can and make your voice heard. Because as a local government, our job is to represent, like serve the community, and so it’s really important for us as local government employees to be mindful of that, but also for the community at large to make sure that they’re voicing their opinions and their concerns about issues in their community so that we can do the best that we can to serve.
Brenda: You hear that folks? You got to advocate. Push! Call your city council or county council rep. Let them know what you want, what they can do. So much power. Power of the purse.
Brenda: So can you share a top tip or two for other cities looking to move towards a zero waste economy? Any key lessons learned?
Gena: Yeah. I mean I think for me, and I spoke a little bit to this, is that it’s really important, especially if you’re starting kind of from never talking about materials in this way, to bring the community along. That’s my opinion. That might take a little bit longer, but I think you’ll get more buy-in over time. So that’s, you know, we talked about the rebate program. That’s providing an incentive that’s voluntary, it’s not mandatory. Gives you an opportunity to really kind of test out some of the things we’re talking about.
Gena: And I think that’s the same for policy. The policy development team is also within my division, and I really like for us to gather data first. Look around the country, see what’s happening. See what other data around the globe. What can we find out about what’s happening now?
Gena: And then test things. So I like to have pilots. I like to get actual, localized data for the things that we’re thinking we want to implement at a policy level to test things out and see how they can be effective. That not only makes the policy stronger, but it also helps to bring whoever is going to be on the kind of end of this mandate to tell us how it can work for them. And so collectively we can create the best policy, you get more compliance, less complaints, and you can reach your target more efficiently that way.
Gena: So I’d say to the extent that you can, don’t come in with a stick. Come in with some carrots first, and really ease your community along. And then I think good data. So take a look at where you are now. Even if you’re not using the language around zero waste, you might be doing something related to zero waste. Just take stock of what’s happening in your community and where the easy things, like that low-hanging fruit we talk about. What are your easy wins that you can really show high impact? If you’re in a position where you’re really needing something to leverage getting an investment or getting the buy-in, what are the easy wins you have that can help you do that?
Gena: And think about measurements. I talked about some of the difficulty of measuring diversion. Diversion can mean so much. So thinking I think from the get go, out of the gate, how are you going to measure your progress? And see how to do that before you get too far along.
Brenda: Yeah, those are great tips. And you know, we probably should’ve talked about this at the beginning, so my bad. But we talk about zero waste. A lot of people when they first hear that term think, “Zero waste? I mean we’re never going to get to zero.” And I like to tell people and communities that it’s like a goal like if you have a goal for zero crime in your community or zero drugs. It’s not that you might not get to zero. It’s a planning construct. So if you’re not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?
Gena: I was going to say, that’s exactly what I was going to say. So what’s a good amount of waste to have?
Brenda: Yeah. So to have a zero waste plan, that’s what you want. You want to plan for a zero waste economy, that all the discarded materials are a resource for another enterprise, another job.
Brenda: Anyway, thanks for leading so much in this space, Gena, and for your other colleagues in the city that you work with. I look forward to following Austin’s trajectory on this. And one of the things we like to end a lot of our podcasts with is if you have any suggested reading recommendations.
Gena: Yeah. You know, I’m juggling virtual school, virtual work, and a handful of other things so I don’t get to read as much as I would like. But since I have so little time, I decided to pick up recently President Obama’s memoir, The Promised Land, which is, you know, a little under a thousand pages so [crosstalk 00:41:49].
Brenda: Just some light reading.
Gena: I kind of miss, he’s such a great orator, and missing… It comes out in the text. So it’s been nice to start the book, and you can kind of hear his voice as you read it. But that’s what I’m reading lately.
Brenda: Awesome. I got that as a holiday gift and I haven’t picked it up, so you’re going to inspire me to take a look at it. There’s one book that I’ve cracked the cover on that I also got as a holiday gift that I’ll just share because it’s related to what we’ve been talking about. And it’s The Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture by John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight. And our colleague [crosstalk 00:42:30] at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance actually has a quote on it. [inaudible 00:42:34] “presents the what, why and how-to of bringing repair and reuse to every town in the USA.” So I’ve heard great things about it and I told my family I wanted it and they got it for me, and it’s already February [crosstalk 00:42:46].
Gena: I actually flagged that for my team, but we have not gotten it yet.
Brenda: So we’ll add a link to that to buy from an independent bookstore, right Jess?
Jess: Yes we will. Yep, we’ll have links to both those books as well as all the other resources we mentioned in the show notes for this episode. And with that, I think we are just about out of time. So thank you again, Gena, for being on the show today. Thank you Brenda also for joining the conversation. This was really great.
Brenda: Just a pleasure, Gena, to have you. We’ll have you again some time in the future.
Gena: Yeah, it’s great. It’s nice to sit and reflect, so this has been fun.
Jess: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. Finally, you can help us out with a gift that helps produce this podcast, gets us great guests like Gena McKinley, and helps us provide original research and resources on our website. You can also help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts.
Jess: The show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_Al. From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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